Hacking China’s social credit: Cheaters claim millions in cash, instant promotions, and preferential dating

This is the seventh chapter of Insights from the Future. This is a book I’m writing about technology, innovation, and people … from the perspective of the future. Subscribe to my newsletter mailing list to keep in touch and get notified when the book publishes. Previously published at Medium.

April 9, 2023

BEIJING — China is in upheaval today following unconfimed reports on Sina Weibo that hackers have seized control of the nation’s all-encompassing social credit system.

The spoils?

Large interest-free loans, almost-instant promotions at work, and preferential access to the most-desired dating partners on Baihe, the Chinese version of Tinder.

“A teenage pencil-neck geek is my new boss,” one account from a 45-year-old middle manager in Shanghai posted on social media site Weibo. “He’s barely ever in the office, drives a Tesla, and dates a new girl every night. He knows nothing, but his social credit score is over 350,000!”

The account alleges that the young executive in question discovered a way to hack the social credit system that governs life in China.

High social creditors — the so-called Gāo xìnyù — benefit from easy access to almost all services in the country. People with low levels of social credit due to civil fines, non-repayment of loans, misdemeanors, or broadly-described “anti-social characteristics” have trouble booking flights, getting reservations at restaurants, attending concerts, or accessing any governmental services.

They also can’t get dates.

Baihe and other Chinese dating services have published users’ social credit scores since 2019. But recently, there have been reports that the social credit ranking has been baked into the dating sites’ matching algorithms … enabling high-status individuals more opportunity to meet eligible singles, and burying profiles that don’t meet certain criteria.

“I defaulted on one loan,” another account complained. “Now I can’t get a single date. Even guys I meet in the bar ask to see my Social Credit before buying me a drink. Anything under 500, and they head to the next girl. That’s $10,000 in cosmetic surgery in Beverly Hills down the drain.”

The result has been a black market in social credit points. Numerous services have sprung up claiming to be able to boost your credit score.

For, naturally, a small fee.

Most, of course, are entirely fake … the modern equivalent of buying fake social media followers. Some, however, are reportedly real, and have resulted in instant elevations in status, including raises and promotions at work and free or near-free vacations.

The really controversial part, however, is the cash.

Specifically, interest-free loans.

In the summer of 2023, China required banks to not only use social credit scores in determining who could borrow money, but also forced financial institutions to offer free or almost-free credit to high-status individuals. Shortly thereafter, rumors began to surface that glitches were appearing.

People with low or no social credit quickly leveled up … much more quickly than had been possible in the past. And with no-interest loans available, some of them were able to buy luxurious homes on nominal salaries. In one case, a 20-year-old in Guangdong allegedly purchased a $25M import-export business and installed himself as the new boss.

Chinese authorities are quick to dismiss the stories.

“There have been no confirmed reports of irregularities,” an official with China’s State Council said in a statement. “Social credit is working well, ensuring that resources are allocated fairly to deserving people.”

Dissenting opinions have quickly been deleted from Sina Weibo and WeChat, as well as Tencent’s QQ. Affected accounts were deleted yesterday as well, though quiet rumors persist.

One expert thinks it’s only the beginning.

“China is all-in on its social credit system, and it is now completely integrated with all digital sectors of China’s economy,” said Catherine Davis, an author and professor of economics at Dalhousie University. “Given that it’s a distributed system with multiple nodes, there’s a pretty large attack surface. I think we’ll see more of this before they find and fix any security holes.”

Meanwhile, Chinese citizens are already seeing social credit inflation.

“I used to be able to get any table in any restaurant in Shanghai with my credit score of 550,” one complained. “Now I’m eating at Da Niang Dumpling every night.”

It’s getting so bad, the gourmet complained, that he might consider buying some social credit.

The only problem?

Finding a trustworthy dealer to help him cheat China’s global reputation management system.

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